I recently reviewed a collection of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short stories. In this post, I will examine the beginning of one of those stories, “The Dragon,” in the context of The New Leaf Journal’s very own Emu Café. Rather that delve into the story too deeply, this article will focus on the very aesthetic beginning of the story wherein a nobleman requests interesting stories for a book from ordinary people in a tea house.

Illustration of an attendant at a tea house from Isabella L. Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1911)
“Attendant at Tea House” from Isabella Bird’s “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” (1911)

The Nobleman Requests Stories

Akutagawa’s “The Dragon” begins with a nobleman sauntering into a tea house. The nobleman states that he had been thinking of going to the tea house to write a story book. For his part, the nobleman acknowledged that he knew of no stories worth writing, and, being idle, trying to come up with stories bored him. Like any good industrious lazy person, he decided to inquire if the people at the tea house might have interesting stories. After he received a favorable response, the nobleman directed his retainers to use their fans to keep the tea house cool while everyone prepared to tell their stories. The nobleman’s directions came as follows:

Here, boys. Start using your big fans so that the whole room may have a breeze. That will make us a little cooler. You, ironmaster, and you potter, don’t be reserved. Both of you, step nearer to this desk. That woman who sells ‘sushi’- the sunlight is too hot for you, you’d better put your pail in a corner of the verandah. Priest, lay down your golden hand-drum. You, samurai, and you, mountain priest, there, have you spread your mats?

From the Tuttle Classics translation of Akutagawa’s “The Dragon”

After everyone settled in, the nobleman continued:

Are you all ready? Then if you’re ready, potter, since you are the oldest, you first tell us any story you prefer.

My Thoughts on the Opening of Akutagawa’s “The Dragon”

The scene to begin “The Dragon” is written with high energy. I can picture the nobleman rolling into the Tea House, retainers in tow, and making a surprise request to those in attendance. He was looking for “unusual anecdotes and curious stories” to fill a book that would be shared far and wide, and he believed that the common folk would have more interesting stories than he could come up with himself.

In the foregoing passage, he responded enthusiastically when those in attendance at the tea house agreed to share their stories. He immediately had his retainers create a pleasant breeze (we are told that the ordinarily cool spring was drowned out by the chorus of cicadas). Then, one by one, he encouraged people in the tea house to make themselves comfortable and come forward in order that they could share their stories. The nobleman was excited, the storytellers settled in, and everyone waited with anticipation for the first of what promised to be many interesting stories.

The Emu Café Welcome

The spirit of Akutagawa’s opening to The Dragon reminded me of what I wrote back in May to introduce our own Emu Café.

Welcome, one and all, to the opening of The Emu Café. In this special establishment of The New Leaf Journal, we serve only the finest descriptions of coffee, tea, and snacks to accompany. After you brew and procure your own, enjoy the lively discourse about aesthetics and the life lived well. The ambiance is always peaceful. Light flits through the windows such that, while indoors, the particular sensibilities of the days and seasons permeate the establishment. The traits of the seasons are most crisp in the refreshing mornings. Hours pass by slowly, like a reverie, in the bold colors of the afternoon. Lovers of elegance and wisdom are all in accord that the Moon, embroidered in the starlight curtains, as seen through The Emu Café’s window, is indeed beautiful.

From “Welcome to the Emu Café

Regarding the topic of discourse at The Emu Café, I wrote:

[N]othing should go better with good coffee and tea than pleasant conversations about aesthetics and the life lived well.

Comparing The Dragon and The Emu Café

Akutagawa’s nobleman sets the stage for the the tale that takes up most of his short story. The nobleman explains why he is soliciting stories, and then once he receives a favorable response to his request, energetically organizes the tea house so that those in attendance can comfortably recount their stories. The nobleman’s energy builds anticipation for the tales to come and serves to put the reader in a pleasant state of mind for the potter’s tale.

My focus in The Emu Café is a bit different. I am inviting you, the reader, to visit a unique section on The New Leaf Journal. Because an online writing website cannot serve coffee or tea, I invite you to brew your own before consuming the content that I select for the section. Presuming you have settled in, I then introduce the ambiance of The Emu Café, which ties into its theme and aesthetic focuses, with an emphasis on the seasons and the times of day.

Both the nobleman’s story day at the tea house and The Emu Café have a theme. The nobleman requests “unusual anecdotes and curious stories.” I provide that the topics of discussion at The Emu Café will be “pleasant conversations about aesthetics and the life lived well.”

The Dragon Cafe? – Learning From Akutagawa

I read Akutagawa’s short story, which predates The New Leaf Journal by 101 years, a few months after I published The Emu Café introduction. I like to think that The Emu Café captured just a bit of the energy that the nobleman expresses before the potter’s story begins in “The Dragon.”

While The Emu Café’s mission remains the same, and is thus different than the nobleman’s in “The Dragon,” we can draw two things from the short story for our project as we move forward in 2021. Firstly, Emu Café content should be high energy just like the introduction to the section and the beginning of “The Dragon.” Secondly, I like the idea of gathering different types of people to tell pertinent stories, and I think the Emu proprietor may have some ideas after being told about “The Dragon.” He and I hope that you look forward to seeing them in the coming weeks and months.